Joan Kennedy finds solace in music


December 13, 1992|By Marian Christy | Marian Christy,New York Times Syndication

Boston -- There's a questioning look in her incredibly soulfu eyes, rimmed in black like those of an Egyptian goddess. For a split second she looks scared. Even her soft smile is hesitant.

Suddenly Joan Kennedy, the blond, glamorous ex-wife of Sen. ** Edward Kennedy, regains her composure, squelching a lingering terror: fear of the press.

Ms. Kennedy glides gracefully from the doorway of her elegant Boston apartment to the fir-green, Chinese-red confines of a room with a spectacular view of the shimmering Charles River dotted with bright white sailboats.

Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" wafts through the air and competes for attention with her perfume.

Ms. Kennedy, a former Revlon model, is wearing a zebra-patterned sweater over jet-black pants stretched like a second skin over her mannequin-perfect body.

She has triumphed over bouts with alcoholism, the Chappaquiddick incident (in which the senator drove off a bridge and didn't report the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne for almost 10 hours), the amputation of her son's leg due to cancer and the painful pangs of divorce aggravated by the senator's widely publicized penchant for womanizing.

"I've been thinking for a long time about what to do with the rest of my life," she says, settling into the corner of a couch. Her voice is melodious.

What she has done is write "The Joy of Classical Music: A Guide for You and Your Family" (Doubleday), which was published last month.

It is a milestone, the beginning of the rest of her life.

Ms. Kennedy is an accomplished pianist and musical narrator who has performed in major U.S. cities and in Europe.

Instead of pursuing her career aggressively during her marriage, she adopted the role of dutiful political wife and hit the campaign trail for Jack and Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. She was, in effect, a silenced wife who did what she was expected to.

"It used to be," Ms. Kennedy says, "that wives of politicians were seen and not heard. I was trained in that attitude.

"Nice young ladies were supposed to be in the background, not the forefront. And I never had a yearning to be different."

Ms. Kennedy is not a woman who believes that great things start with breaking rules. Or so she says.

"I admire Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas. But I still don't feel like taking a feminist role and speaking out on women's issues.

"My background training is not front and center. I was always expected to back up my husband and not speak out about how I really felt."

Since her 1984 divorce from the senator, Ms. Kennedy, an inveterate soul searcher, has been on a quest for a career.

It was Leonard Bernstein who suggested Ms. Kennedy write a book on music after she received a master's degree in education. And her old friend from Manhattanville College, Nan Talese, who is an editor at Doubleday and wife of writer Gay Talese, knew that Ms. Kennedy had always secretly mourned for her own career.

Ms. Talese made the first big step possible: a book.

"I know my last name opens doors," Ms. Kennedy says. "I'm grateful for that."

The key is an enormous public curiosity about how she dealt with a philandering husband and beat the bottle through support from Alcoholics Anonymous and with therapy that, she says, stretched over a decade.

"I'm especially thankful to my woman friends who stuck around in foul weather," she says.

Ms. Talese wanted Ms. Kennedy to put more of herself and her life in the book, which was five years in the making, but the old hesitancy -- the fear of being "dissected," as she puts it -- slowed her down.

Music as medicine

Music was and is one of the great props that got her through her eventful life. She speaks of music as one of her medicines.

"People are always reaching out for something beautiful," she says. "For me, music is a balm -- something soothing. It's an escape from reality.

"Music puts you in touch with your own feelings. It makes you aware."

Ms. Kennedy says she is "a bit terrified" of a 14-city book tour and of appearances on national television talk shows.

She is a celebrity teetering on the tightrope of non-celebrity. She knows the press is merciless.

"There's a purity to music. There isn't a purity to politics," she says, her hands shaking as she folds them in an effort to calm herself.

Ms. Kennedy is a heroine in her own right, a victim of the cruel world of politics, someone who has survived and, even if she doesn't know it, who seems to have absorbed the rudiments of feminism.

"Soon I will be doing something I've never done before: selling my work," she says.

"I haven't done any campaigning since 1980. When I campaigned, I knew what I was expected to say about the issues. But to sell my work I have to speak for myself, from the heart. I just have to be me."

Gaining confidence

The full force of this self-discovery and, yes, confidence is apparent. "Selling myself will be easier than selling a political candidate," she says.

The candidate she sells these days is her son Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island legislator.

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